Batman: The Dark Knight Returns part 2 – Still a Compromise, Hold the Quality

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Well here we are again, several months later but apparently none the wiser, taking a look at the second part of Warner Brothers’ two part adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns. Are the flaws I mentioned last time still there? Yes. Are there some new ones added to the mix? Oh, yes. Am I willing to give it less rope than I gave to the last one? Don’t interrupt me son, I got a noose to tie.

The action picks up right where the last one left off, the previously comatose Joker is up and about and planning something sinister while pretending to be rehabilitated and Commissioner Gordon is retiring, leaving the far more hard-line about men dressing up as flying rodents to cripple purse snatchers Elen Yindel in his old job. Meanwhile, the President (but not the one you’d think) appoints Superman to try and talk some sense into his old team-mate, just as soon as he’s done winning a war in the war-torn but very fictional Corto Maltese. Meanwhile Batman is breaking in his new partner Carrie Kelly, having now taken up the Robin mantle, which is still uncomfortable visually given that the lower half of the costume is still just a pair of yellow swim trunks.

To get the easy stuff out of the way, all of the flaws I griped about last time are still painfully present. The animation is still incredibly dull and boring, and saps away all the flair and style of the original art from the graphic novel like some kind of style vampire. The voice acting still needs work, with Peter Weller producing the most non-Batman sounding Batman since Adam West. Some new blood is added to the mix, including Lost‘s Michael Emerson as the Joker. He does a decent job, but anyone doing voice work for the Joker who isn’t Mark Hamill has some pretty big shoes to fill. After an actor’s played that role so often and for so long, anyone else just seems wrong, like if they recast Captain Kirk with some dead-eyed prettyboy who – oh wait nevermind.

the-dark-knight-returns-joker-kills1What you’ll probably notice right from the start, however, is the film’s stout refusal to stray from the book in terms of literal content. That President Supes gets his marching orders from? Ronald Reagan. Sure, they don’t SAY it’s Ronald Reagan but you can tell. Yes sir, you can. And those viewers looking for some good old fashioned, wholesome bat-violence may be taken aback when the first fight scene is between Batman dressed as an old homeless lady and a six foot, topless Neo-Nazi with swastikas tatooed on her breasts. The violence is also extremely brutal at times, with the Joker later shooting, stabbing and gassing his way through an amusement park, and they really don’t shy away from showing him just straight up murderin’ folks.Yeah, just an FYI, this really really isn’t for kids.

When it comes to sticking to the letter of the book in that sense, the film is admirable in its lack of restraint, I mean I wouldn’t have blamed them for cutting out the Neo-Nazi stuff. But where we start to run into problems is where the film makers were all to keen to emulate the text of the book, but the subtext seems to be beyond their grasp.

The Dark Knight Returns, the graphic novel that is, was a deeply satirical work, with a lot of things to say about politics, violence, and other high-minded topics that Frank Miller would completely lose the ability to be subtle about later on. For example, in the book where Batman and Superman’s final battle is clearly -really- about a tool of government oppression vs a figurehead of social uprising, in the movie it’s really just two guys having a really big punch-up in a dark alley. All of Batman’s outrage at Superman’s being on the government’s leash is excised and replaced with more of him just wordlessly wailing on him in increasingly silly ways.

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It starts to get in to Watchmen territory, where the film makers clearly adapted everything in the book….except the parts that actually matter. I’m sure someone could read some kind of subtext into the film that bears some similarity to that of the original text, but from where I’m looking it looks like the film makers either missed the finer points of the book entirely or just ignored them in favor of more sexy violence.

It’s no real surprise that this was the part when the whole endeavour falls flat on its bat-face, after all the first half of the book isn’t as big on subtext as it is on “holy shit look Batman’s back and he’s built like a brick shithouse nailed to a tank and now he’s gonna mudwrestle a dude!” and it isn’t hard to adapt that, per-se.

The portion of the book on display here, however, was where a lot more of what was happening on the page meant more than it literally meant, and it seems that for the most part the people involved in the film were either unable or unwilling to go beyond the surface and get into the nitty gritty subtext, and though there are a lot of things to harp on about this movie, that’s really the heart of it.

The Dark Knight Returns part 1 was a decent, if a tad compromised bit of animated bat-fun brought down by shoddy animation and voice acting. Part 2 has those problems again, but drop some criminal mishandling or outright absence of the subtext and all-important social commentary of the book and you got yourself one big steaming bat-failure.

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